I've never been one to jump to the last page in a book, and I generally don't like to hear what happened at the end of a movie before I've seen it, but in some cases (like an opera or a good Broadway show) knowing the gist of things can help you follow along better from start to finish. In this case, the theme behind this story is, GO GET OMNISPHERE! This puppy is calling your name if you do anything musical involving a computer whatsoever. The short of it is that there's nothing out there that's as deep as Omnisphere while being unbelievably easy to navigate and coming loaded with the breadth of great sounds. That said, let's get into the long of it.
The basic idea of Omnisphere is that it's a synthesizer and a high-resolution sample-player rolled into one piece of software-not unique so far, but hang on. Not only does Omnisphere give you unbelievable depth-of-control over samples, but the DSP-based synth sounds wicked even without touching the sample library. Also, on-board effects and modulation routing are accessible and easy to learn with a "live" interface geared towards using Omnisphere as a truly-flexible performance instrument.
Let's start with navigating Omnisphere's library. Three different browsers (all beautifully positioned and easily manipulated) mean thousands of included sounds (Multis, Patches, Soundsources-nearly 7000 total). Furthermore, Spectrasonics recently released a free 2000-patch update, effectively doubling the initial offering of patches. Now, from behind this paper page I can already hear you sighing as you envision another voluminous set of sounds that you'll never really explore thoroughly. Take heart, the characters at Spectrasonics could also hear your sigh long before you knew it was coming, and they took the time to really work through the problem of endless lists of sounds and how to make sense of them. Each browser has a purpose, and each helps you get to what you're looking for quickly. The idea for what you need to do determines which browser you hit right away. Once in the chosen browser, Omnisphere has some really simple parameters that help you narrow down what you're looking for quickly by category (synth, keyboard, texture, etc.), genre (ambient, ballad, film, etc.), complexity, and author. Even a search window is included for simply typing in what you're thinking of. For example, searching for "chime" (a pretty specific descriptor) returned roughly thirty options in the patch browser-not a terribly daunting task to skim through the results.
Not only are the browsers broken down into categories, each category has a drop-down menu that allows you to choose different filtering variables. For example, if you don't think genre is gonna get you where you need to be, you can change that specific browser variable to show you patches categorized by pattern (arpeggiated, pulsing, rhythmic, etc.), technique, and gender-as well as a few others. It's truly amazing how customizable yet user-friendly the browsers are. Already we're really miles ahead of most sampler/synths out there, but there's another really simple feature that can shake you out of your usual "grab one of the first five patches" rut, and that's the Shuffle function. This is really one of those things that we're likely to look back on and wonder how it could have taken so long to incorporate. Simply hit the button, and you get a new random look at the available patches. Brilliant! You can go even deeper into the browser by customizing the attributes of each patch; adding keywords and notes; saving your own patches; and adding new unique attribute types and modifying how the attributes change when jumping between patches and between browser windows. Again, simple enough to get going right out of the box, deep enough to keep the most diligent audio geeks (no offense if you're of this persuasion, I aspire to audio geekness myself) occupied for years.
If you run through Spectrasonics' tutorial videos (which are also some really great lessons on synthesizer programming in general) you'll hear the words "easy" and "powerful" hundreds of times. You may start to feel that what you're hearing is some sort of gimmick, but the amazing thing is that they're right! The interface that they've developed is revolutionary. It's both easy and powerful and with the myriad of products available, you really can't stress those terms enough. Instead of the usual complexity of most soft synths and samplers out there, you're presented with clean, accessible "sections" that are visually unique, which allow the learning curve for Omnisphere to be less severe. I found myself able to focus on and retain the specific functionality of each component of the software because my understanding was always triggered by the text labels and by the unique visual cues. This really is a surprisingly groundbreaking idea when you think of most software available in this category, like Native Instruments KONTAKT 3 or MOTU MachFive 2. On most soft synths and samplers, you're presented with an endless number of labeled knobs, faders, and other variables that are all crammed in really close together with super-small type and virtually identical appearance. Where most software instruments have attempted to fit as much information and functionality into one page on the screen, Spectrasonics gave Omnisphere multiple clean pages with clear paths to other relevant attributes or pages. Each page is easy to scan quickly so that locating the desired parameter is amazingly fast.
Parameters on each page are also grouped into categories with labeling that's generously-sized and colors that contrast well with the background, further making navigation a breeze. It may be easy to take these design elements lightly, but believe me, the interface itself is nothing short of inspiring. As for the sonic palette, the possibilities for tweaking this synth are close to limitless, all while staying intuitive. Sections that require more real-estate have several parameters represented on the main edit page and have a clearly visible plus-sign that expands that section's possibilities onto the entire interface's real-estate, making the details of the parameter deeply tweakable and super-visible. A great example is the Filter section. The filter zoom page unfolds the controls for dual filters (great for some really amazing textures) that can be run in series or in parallel. The basic parameters represented in the main edit page are cutoff, resonance, key, envelope, gain, spread, and a drop-down menu that lets you select presets. After hitting the plus-sign to reveal all parameters, you get individual control over each filter's type (low-pass, band-pass, etc.), cutoff offset, resonance offset, and spread offset; and there are further controls to adjust how the two filters interact in combination (mix level, gain, etc.). Another great example of the depth of Omnisphere is the Envelopes section, where you can control a basic ADSR set of sliders and then hit the plus-sign for a graphic interface that lets you get super tweaky with not only how the ADSR parameters interact with each other, but also several other lovely tweaks like a Chaos function that will constantly change the envelope in some pretty killer ways. The graphic envelope also allows for multiple points to be inserted to go way beyond attack, decay, sustain, and release; and there are some great presets for some really complex envelopes-useful for the amp and filter envelopes, but sick (meaning great) when used with modulation envelopes to control other parameters. Both the ADSR sliders and the graphic envelopes also interact with each other so tweaks made in one are reflected in the other.
Each patch gets its own full-size page, and four buttons allow you to break this down into Main, Edit, FX, and Arp-also with their own full-size pages. Same with the multi section with its four buttons for Mixer, FX, Live, and Stack that open tons of unbelievably-deep functionality, also in extremely-clear, visually-unique pages. The LFO section gives you six buttons to cycle through the six possible LFOs per part. (Plus, there are eight parts per multi giving you 48 possible LFOs to work with per multi. Excessive? You just never know!) The Modulation section gives you clean access to basic modulation controls and a plus-sign that opens up a Flex-Mod matrix. The oscillator section let's you choose whether the part is sample or DSP-based and gives some great control over things like frequency modulation, ring modulation, wave shaping, and a really-cool voice multiplier. The voice multiplier has a wonderful setting called Harmonia that lets you add four voices with control over mix levels and pitch offsets for adding great layers to any sound. The FX tab on each part's window opens up a large view of four possible effects slots for each layer and four slots for both layers to share. Independent arpeggiators for each part let you get really detailed with how layered sounds behave-great functionality, and with the Groove Lock feature, an arpeggiator can sync to the groove of a Stylus RMX file or MIDI file. Finally, all of these parameters can be modulated or MIDI-learned with just a few clicks. It's really amazing that Spectrasonics has wrapped up this much utility in an interface that's likely a thousand times easier to grasp than my description of it.
Now, all the things I've mentioned so far sound lovely but don't mean a thing if the speakers can't translate your amazing idea. In short, it's all a waste of time if the thing doesn't produce amazing sound. Take heart, I wouldn't have used this much space if Omnisphere wasn't off the charts in every respect. Omnisphere comes with a nice-sized library (weighing in at over 40 GB), and its quality is simply out of this world. Here's where you really begin to be amazed. If you've had any experience with soft synths and software samplers, you've likely experienced the frustration at scanning through huge numbers of presets and not finding
a single inspiring sound. The experience with Omnisphere couldn't be more different. The sounds are incredibly well-produced and sport a really rich, round, analog "hairiness" that guarantees it'll be a much more difficult task to find a sound that doesn't move you. This software screams cinematic (much like Spectrasonics Atmosphere) with sounds like "Meditation Menagerie" (a virtual orchestra of tuvan drones-Russian throat singing, Tibetan singing bowls, saz), "Bella Hola Bella" (huge round bass overlaid with reverberating bells and understated synth stabs all morphing and evolving over time), and "Critters in the Pipes" (a combination of flute notes, noise from an old radio, and the twisting of dry wood). Omnisphere has lush, dramatic, dynamic, epic, arpeggiated sounds by the truckload, and as you read the descriptions of each part (really well written for those of you who are interested in sound design), you'll quickly realize why it took them so long to get this product to market. These guys spent years with a "no plug-in" rule attempting to develop new and unique sounds -and succeeding at it-by actually recording (gasp!-in this day and age) acoustic sounds. Instead of emulating existing musical instruments, the idea here was to record real sounds to create new "instruments" or to record instruments played in unique ways and with unique additions to capture a different "way" of hearing the sound. A great example is the light bulb sound that founder Eric Persing and sound designer/composer Diego Stocco demonstrate on the Spectrasonics website. They take the sound that a light bulb's filament makes when tapped, enhance it, and key map it. Turns out this is a really great texture and perfect on its own as an alternative to bells or a glock, or it can be filtered and modulated to create some really sweeping emotional chords. Another set of really extraordinary samples are the fan drum sounds, created by playing a drum head with a spinning handheld fan-a truly unique texture coming across as something like a didgeridoo with a giant fly trapped inside. Tibetan singing bowls with fruit rolling around inside; a typewriter rigged with a soundboard and strings (wicked bass sounds to be had here); a 20,000 volt Tesla coil connected to a Roland JX-8P (stellar analog, gritty sawtooth sounds); a stapler's spring; and a drying rack with two acoustic guitars coupled to it and played with a cello bow-these are many other examples of sounds that are not only exotic but are extremely musical and realistically-applicable to scoring, song writing, and sound design. Now, these aren't the only types of sounds you're going to find in this library. You also get a ridiculous arsenal of straight-up instruments, including several great acoustic guitars, kalimba, sitar, bells, strings, etc. Lots of these sounds come from other widely-acclaimed Spectrasonics sample libraries like Hans Zimmer Guitars, Symphony of Voices, Distorted Reality, and Heart of Africa. Clearly, this isn't another company scrambling to put out an enormous library by throwing in anything they can get their hands on. Spectrasonics has assembled remarkable, industry-tested sounds, many of which have become essential to the work of award-winning composers and sound designers the world over. These library sounds were programmed into Omnisphere patches using the capabilities of the Spectrasonics STEAM Engine. Morever, a beautiful set of vintage synth samples add some real grit to this library. Sounds from such legends as the Roland Jupiter-8, MKS-80 Super Jupiter, JP-8000, and Juno-60, as well as the Moog Modular 55 and the Oberheim OB-8, just to name a few, add edge and depth, all with the tweakability of the STEAM engine and the Omnisphere interface.
Not only did Spectrasonics whip up an amazing product, but they are also clearly loyal to their fans with some great upgrade pricing available to those who own Atmosphere ($249 upgrade) and an even better deal for those that own Atmosphere, Trilogy, and Stylus RMX ($149). Reasonably priced by any standards-just a touch over the price of KONTAKT 3 and comparable to MachFive 2-and coming stocked full to the gills of firepower. Their new in-house-developed STEAM engine has Spectrasonics poised to take advantage of 64-bit processing and will allow all their products, including Trilian (the upcoming rewrite of Trilogy) and the v1.7 update to Stylus RMX, to function seamlessly together and in interesting new ways. When considering the scope of this software, performance is already efficient compared to anything in its class. On a Mac Pro 2.8 GHz Dual Quad Core with 2 GB of RAM, I had no trouble loading up and using ten instances of Omnisphere with multis and patches that totaled 24 parts for a song I built start-to-finish using only Omnisphere. Even on an older MacBook Pro 2 GHz Core Duo with 2 GB of RAM, I had no trouble running ten instances of Omnisphere with multis and patches totaling 20 parts as well. If all this weren't enough, there have even been hints of a future update that will allow importing of non-Spectrasonics samples as well, which would greatly enhance usability. I'd love to see iLok support, but the current authorization scheme is simple and allows for multiple installs for single users who own more than one rig. All told, Omnisphere is seriously set to revolutionize software synthesis and sampling, and it's truly a dream addition for anyone who deals with computer-based recording or manipulation of sound. ($499 MSRP; www.spectrasonics.net)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.